Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
New Balls, Please!
I’ve never been a big sports fan. Whether it’s the rules of the game or the lines painted on the grass or the gym floor, from the umpire yelling “strike!” to the referee blowing his whistle to the linesman waving his flag, nowadays assisted by hawkeye camera systems, goal line technology, and god knows what other high-tech gadgetry, not to mention the state-of-the-art laboratories working round the clock to test the blood and urine of the participants for illegal performance-enhancing drugs: everything, absolutely everything seems geared towards ensuring fair play, while in my books, unfairness is where the fun begins.
Lauded as a gentleman’s game, tennis has got to be one of the silliest. Who needs Monty Python when we can watch Wimbledon?
It’s not just the “delightful tradition” of strawberries and cream that kills me, or the Duke and Duchess of Kent up in the Royal Box with all those other upperclass twits, nodding off to sleep while down below, two guys or gals whack a ball back and forth for hours on end. It’s the etiquette of the game itself that never ceases to amaze me.
When a player scores a point with the help of the net, for instance, instead of calling out “nyah nyah, take that, you sucker!”, they are expected to apologize to their opponent. Can you believe it?
And then there’s that moment when the balls have taken such a whacking that they lose their bounce, and the umpire up in his high-chair leans into the microphone to say: “new balls please”, sending one of the ball boys or girls scurrying off to fetch a tin of fresh ones. As if that isn’t funny enough, before a player is allowed to serve with one of the new balls, they are expected to hold it up sο that their opponent can see it.
I was reminded of that absurd little courtesy when Full o’ Bull came into my room just now to show me his new balls, that is to say, to announce the new house rules with which we would be playing the game of host-and-guest from this point on. He’s a real gentleman. I’ve said so before. And a jolly good sport.
Yes folks, that’s right: Full o’ Bull and his family have decided not to kick me out of their house. It was a close call, mind you. When it was put to a vote, the outcome was one yea in favor of letting me stay, one nay, and one abstention.
To begin with the abstention: that was the daughter. I was her parents’ problem, not hers. I guess when you’re in your early twenties and cooped up with your old folks for weeks and weeks, they are your biggest problem, reducing the presence of any additional life-forms in the house to an insignificant detail.
Moving on to the nay, that was Full o’Bull’s wife. Fair enough. I know what a pain in the neck I can be. No hard feelings.
But that means it was Full o’ Bull who voted yea. Can you believe it? After everything that has transpired between us?
As the daughter had no intention of changing her vote, it was down to husband and wife to break the deadlock. Full o’ Bull tells me that a heated debate ensued, his wife eventually giving in, though not before stipulating a number of conditions that would have to be met.
Hubby dear was to stop obsessing over me. He was to ignore my provocations. Ideally, he was to avoid reading these installments of Lockdown in Amsterdam altogether. And above all, he was to get back to work on his essays. If and only if he abided by these new rules, then yes, I was welcome to stay.
I was a bit puzzled. The onus seemed to be on poor Full o’ Bull, not me.
There was one important caveat, he now warned me.
If I wanted to carry on writing about him, by all means (“be my guest!”), but if I laid so much as a finger on his wife or daughter (by which he meant a literary finger, of course, not a literal one, though I’m sure he’d be none too happy with one of those, either), or on his son and his girfriend, or on any of his friends and relations, or his folks back in Canada, then I’d go flying straight out the door. That meant: no personal details, no descriptions physical or otherwise, and especially, no wisecracks or put-downs.
“Have I made myself clear?”
“Oh yes,” I said, nodding vigorously.
Wow. What a transformation. Remember what he was like in the previous chapter, desperately pleading with me to stop writing about him? And look at him now, mighty as a lion protecting his pride against a rogue intruder. But impressed though I was, at the same time I couldn’t help thinking that this so-called caveat of his was a bit of a dud.
Take his son. I hadn’t even mentioned him until just now. He and his girlfriend live elsewhere in town. Although it isn’t strictly forbidden under Dutch lockdown rules for them to come over and visit, he doesn’t want to take any risks, what with his parents being as old as they are.
And had I told you about Full o’ Bull having folks back in Canada? I don’t think so.
As for his daughter, what do you know about her, except that she lives here in this apartment, and that she is in her early twenties, another detail that I disclosed only just a few paragraphs ago?
Or even his wife. I’ve said she’s nice, something he can hardly object to. Once or twice, I’ve indicated that she is concerned about him. But that can hardly be considered a personal detail. I mean, wouldn’t you be worried, if you were Full o’ Bull’s wife?
You don’t even know her name. Nor of any of the others. In fact, if an editor were to read what I’ve written so far, they might say: “Great story, Toby, but the minor characters need a little fleshing out.” That’s how discreet I’ve been. So why this tough talk about leaving his loved ones alone or else…? It made the whole lion act seem a bit farcical.
“Any questions?” he asked me, as though reading my thoughts.
“Well, yes,” I said. “Just one. Why did you, of all people, vote to let me stay?”
“It’s funny that you, of all people, should ask,” he said with a wry smile. “Why, indeed?”
Now that, I have to admit, was an ace.
“Nice one, Full o’ Bull,” I said. “Fifteen-love.”
For you to understand what’s going on here, allow me to backtrack just a little.
We’ve talked at length about the elephant in the room that has caused so much friction between Full o’ Bull and me: the rising literary star versus the old writer fading into oblivion, me raking in the dough versus him scrounging for funds, my non-stop inspiration versus his writer’s block, and so on and so forth. The Mozart-Salieri elephant, if you will.
What I haven’t told you is that from day one, there has also been a second elephant in the room. Who knows, maybe we’ll have discerned a whole herd by the time this lockdown is over. But to return to the second elephant for now, that elephant, my dear readers, is Donald Trump.
Oh, no, I can almost hear you groan. One of the joys of reading my Lockdown in Amsterdam, I’ve been told, was that it provided such a welcome escape, not just from your own corona woes, but from the non-stop barrage of Trump-news that has been coming at you from all sides for these past three to four years. Do we really have to bring him into the story?
Yes, I’m afraid we do. But I’ll make it as quick and painless as I possibly can. Maybe we can even have some fun along the way.
It will not come as a surprise that Full o’Bull and his family, like most Europeans, and certainly like most European intellectuals, can’t stand the guy. Now here’s the thing. It’s pretty much common knowledge by now, but in case you’re one of my new fans and haven’t heard: I voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 elections.
Yep. And I’m planning to vote for him again this coming November.
You’re kidding, right?
Needless to say, when I first dropped this brick – right after he got elected, during a “think-a-thon” in Boulder, Colorado on the role we writers could play now that this nightmare scenario had come true – it sent shock waves through the literary world and well beyond. How could a brilliant young writer like me, hailed as the voice of his generation, vote for that racist, sexist bully, for that, that, narcissistic, authoritarian monster?
Not because I liked the guy or agreed with his views, I tried to explain, nor because I disliked Hillary Clinton even more and considered him the lesser of two evils, but because I figured he’d be way more fun as a president.
Excuse me? Did you say more fun? More FUN???
Sincerity isn’t always appreciated, I guess.
From that point on, whenever Trump sparked some new outrage, three times a day in other words, whether it was sucking up to Putin or grabbing women by the pussy, calling white supremacists “good people” or locking refugee children up in cages, I would get blasted for it on Facebook and Twitter.
Still having fun, Toby? Huh? Huh?
Dare I say yes? Okay, so maybe I’d sing a different tune if I were a frightened Guatemalan kid being separated from his mother, or a bedridden senior in an understaffed nursing home with the virus swirling through its corridors, but to those of us lucky enough not to have taken a direct hit, let’s face it, these past three and a half years have been a hell of a rollercoaster ride.
Think of all the comedians, cartoonists, and late-night show hosts who have shaken off their existential blues and found a new sense of purpose in their lives. Or the swarms of investigative journalists and state prosecutors, burrowing day and night through mounds and mounds of documents, hoping to pick up the telltale scent of rottenness that will lead them from the Trump Tower to the Kremlin.
And think of how many of us, like Full o’ Bull, have been scrolling through the news every morning to find out what that awful man has done this time, eagerly anticipating the delicious shudder that it will send down our spines.
Needless to say, my vote for Trump did cost me a number of friends and followers. One female fan who had propositioned to me on several occasions in the past, now sent me a cut-out of a broken heart. Oh well, such is life.
On the bright side, I was getting plenty of thumbs-up from new “friends”, thanking me for not being a snowflake like all those other dipshit writers out there. I deserved the friggin’ Nobel Prize just for that.
One good thing about being controversial is that it’s great for sales. My Revenge of the Optimists, which had been on the market for quite some time, came roaring back into the top ten. When it first came out, back in 2015, foreign publishers had been reluctant to take it on, given the worldwide slump in book sales. Now, they were at each other’s throats to acquire the rights, among them Sip van Renkum from the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, many readers were beginning to notice something quite extraordinary. For those of you who don’t know the novel, it’s about a new political movement calling themselves the Optimist Army, who blame all the woes of our world on pessimists and now set out to silence them once and for all. Their rhetoric sounded oddly familiar. All the crazy stuff Trump was saying and doing: had I seen it coming?
The following aphorisms, taken from “The Optimist Manifesto” in the opening chapter, have been widely cited as foreshadowing Trump’s disdain for science and for knowledge in general.
“Man has become too smart for his own good. Man must learn to dumb himself down.”
“We don’t need schools and universities, we need churches and stadiums.”
“It’s not the well-informed who hold the key to a brighter future, but the uninformed.”
“We don’t need experts. We need cheerleaders.”
And according to Humphrey Wiggins, a philosopy professor at Oxford University, the next one captures the very essence of Trumpian epistemology:
“A truth that makes us unhappy is a truth not worth knowing.”
As for Trump calling the press “the enemy of the people”, here’s what my Manifesto had to say on that subject:
“For too long, bearers of bad tidings have hidden behind the slogan ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’. But they could have kept the information to themselves. By choosing not to do so, they can be held accountable for the message they are spreading.”
“Ignoring the messenger may not always be enough. Sometimes we must silence him. By whatever means necessary.”
As for the final aphorism – “if you’re happy and you know it, load your gun” – we’ll just have to wait and see how prophetic that one turns out to be. Maybe if Trump gets re-elected. Or else if he loses. Either way, we could have another winner on our hands.
Now remember: Revenge of the Optimists came out in 2015, on June 11th to be exact. That was five days before Trump had even announced his candidature for the presidency! Pretty cool, huh? Cool enough for my American publisher to call me “a visionary” on the cover of all subsequent editions of the book.
Things were about to get even crazier. Revenge had always been plugged as a dark dystopian satire. But some Trump supporters appeared to be taking its central message seriously, even calling their beloved President “Optimist-in-Chief”, after the strongman in my novel.
Not everybody was as amused as I was.
With the rise of populism and the very notion of truth being forced into the defensive, this was not the time for coquettish irony, the essayist Baron Braithwaite warned us in his column in The New Yorker. Would someone please tell “enfant terrible” Toby Quinn to grow up and take a stand?
So what did he want me to do? Issue a statement instructing the public not to take my novel seriously?
Meanwhile, I was getting some pretty wild invitations: I was all set to be guest of honor at a roundtable discussion of the Damion Dicke Society, an ultra-conservative think tank, if my assistant Linda hadn’t found out in the nick of time that this Dicke character had been a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan. Stoking controversy wasn’t always the soundest business strategy, she proffered delicately, especially not nowadays, with cancel culture gaining so much traction. Linda’s great. I always follow her advice.
She did allow me to attend a barbecue organized by a local chapter of the National Rifle Association in Littleville, Nebraska. I swear, every time I tried to take a bite out of my buffalo burger, I got slapped on the back by a passing redneck, and their subsequent handshakes were so firm that it took the bones in my hand several days to find their way back to their original position.
News of my support for “the cause” was spreading far and wide. Just before coming to Holland, I received a pre-recorded video message from the leader of a new Dutch populist party. With an oily charm midway between Jared Kushner and Count Dracula, he suggested meeting over breakfast at the Amstel Hotel. Maybe we could do a book swap: my Revenge of the Optimists in exchange for his PhD thesis on the importance of national borders, which he thought I might find interesting for the following reasons… Then think again, pal, I chuckled, as I waved his video off to my trash folder. It was a nice try, though.
By the time I arrived in Amsterdam, my support for Trump was old news, and being well-educated and well-informed, Full o’ Bull and his wife must have known about it. That didn’t stop them from graciously inviting me into their home in my time of need. Mind you, we all thought I’d only be staying for a few days.
Whether you are hosting a dinner or attending one as a guest, don’t bring up politics! It’s one of the top nonos in every single book of etiquette. I think we were all aware of this. It was particularly applicable in our case, with tensions already running high because of that other elephant in the room. If Trump was mentioned at all, it was only in passing and never by name.
That having been said, Full o’ Bull couldn’t resist prodding the elephant every once in a while, by referring to him as “your” president a little too emphatically. In return, I’d give him my trademark Toby Quinn smile, characterized by my fans as “mischievous” and by my critics as “smug”. We’d leave it at that. It was our way of agreeing to disagree.
Full o’ Bull’s wife came closest to breaching our non-aggression pact one evening. “My” president had just held a press conference during which he suggested that injecting disinfectant into our bodies could help kill the virus, compelling the manufacturers of Lysol and Dettol to issue an urgent warning to the general public to please, please ignore this absurd claim.
“Now tell me, Toby,” she said, turning towards me with the pleasantest of smiles. “Why exactly did you vote for Donald Trump?”
“Why, indeed?” I replied with an equally pleasant smile.
She seemed about to say something, then thought the better of it and just heaved a sigh, shaking her head.
And now, a number of weeks later, when I asked Full o’ Bull why he had voted for letting me stay, he offered me a taste of my own medicine with his “why indeed?”
There was something gleeful, even diabolical in his manner as he left the room, rubbing his hands and chuckling.
Should I be worried?
Short of serving me a poisonous mushroom risotto or chaining me to this desk and transforming this basement study into a medieval dungeon, what can he possibly do? He could decide to write about me, of course. But when I encouraged him to do so a little while back, he didn’t seem at all interested. He knows it wouldn’t help, not if it’s revenge that he’s after. All sorts of nasty things have been written about me over the years and none of it has ever hurt me. On the contrary. As I once said in an interview, I’m the sort of writer who loves to be hated and hates to be loved. It keeps me sharp.
So why is Full o’ Bull letting me stay? Am I missing something here? A third elephant in the room, perhaps?
(coming up next – Chapter 6: Time Flies When You’re Having Fun)